Training At Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by: Christopher Barakat, MS, ATC, CISSN

If you want to know what the best exercises you can do from home with limited equipment are, and how you can stay fit, maintain your muscle and even make progress during this time (COVID-19 Pandemic), then you want to read this article & download the free workout.

Key Takeaways

  1. You can create intense, stimulatory training sessions without fancy gym equipment. 
  2. Your muscles respond to an internal stimulus. We can create this in many external ways. 
  3. Maintaining your muscle is relatively easy. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is officially a global crisis, rightfully forcing many gyms around the world to close, and putting us in a situation to exercise at-home with limited, to no equipment.

It is our responsibility to prioritize our health, maintain our fitness level, and reduce the risk of spreading this disease through social distancing, proper hygiene practices and everything else recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) / World Health Organization (WHO)

To help you all out during this time and future periods (when all is well but you may have limited equipment) I’ve put together a comprehensive training template with various exercise options ranging in difficulty and equipment demands. 

You can download this exercise template HERE: 

FREE DOWNLOAD

Some of you may have NO equipment whatsoever. No problem, this template has you covered. 

Others may have resistance bands and dumbbells. If so, that’s great, you have a lot of options to work with. 

Lastly, some of you may have some gym equipment, perhaps a community gym or limited equipment gym. In that case, you have even more options on the training templates drop-down menu of exercise selection. 

The rest of this article is going to cover some of the scientific data on training with limited equipment, specifically with resistance bands and how beneficial it can be. 

You’re going to learn if resistance band workouts are as effective for building muscle, what resistance band workouts are and aren’t good for, and how to do the best resistance band exercises.

I’ll also cover some of the exercise patterns/ specific movements mentioned in the limited equipment training template.

This is a simple, yet effective training program that will provide you with a positive training stimulus to build muscle, given you execute this program with high intensity and effort!

Let’s get started.

Are Resistance Bands Good for Gaining Muscle?

The term “resistance training” and “weight training” are often incorrectly used interchangeably.  

Resistance can come in so many different forms such as water resistance when swimming or gravity resistance when performing bodyweight exercises.

The important thing is that resistance in itself can create tension within a muscle. This tension causes your muscles to activate, and this is responsible for a lot of the muscle-building effects of strength training.

So, anything that helps you increase the tension in the muscle fiber can help you build muscle. 

This is why resistance bands can be utilized as a means to increase muscle mass, and this has even been proven in the scientific literature. Although more research studies are needed to compare traditional weight training to resistance band training, there is a lot of data supporting resistance bands as an effective option to build muscle. 

Before diving into the data specifically on resistance bands, let’s understand the primary mechanisms that induce muscle growth(1).  

  • Mechanical Tension 
  • Muscle Damage
  • Metabolic Stress 

*check out these other SoG article specifically on some of the mechanisms of Hypertrophy in more detail*. 

Mechanical tension refers to the amount of force that your muscles have to generate to move a weight, and it’s essential for muscle growth.(1)

Resistance training can result in muscular damage, and this leads to an upregulation of growth and repair pathways(1).

Metabolic stress refers to the build-up of metabolic byproducts in the muscle after multiple contractions. This occurs when exercising in the higher repetition range (i.e. 12+ repetitions) and there is a lot of scientific evidence showing that this also contributes to muscle growth(1)

The great news is that a well constructed resistance band training program can address all of those mechanisms and help you gain muscle.

Let’s look at what the research has to say specifically about resistance band training.

To ensure you’re going to get a good growth stimulus from resistance-band training, examining the amount of “muscle activation” produced during the exercise is a good place to start. Electromyography (EMG) is used to measure this neuromuscular (mind-muscle) activation. This technology essentially measures the electric potential of your muscle cells during the contraction phases of an exercise.  

A study that compared resistance-bands to dumbbells found comparably high amounts of muscle activation with both methods. There was no significant difference between the groups and the researchers concluded that either training method can be used (2)

This study primarily examined isolation exercises, like lateral raise, so another research group decided to examine the differences in muscle activation between resistance band workouts and traditional free weight exercises. The exercises performed were the stiff-legged deadlift, single arm cable rows, lat-pulldowns, and the barbell squat. The researchers observed similar amounts of muscle activation in all exercises except the squat(3).  

This study highlights one of the potential drawbacks of using resistance bands. Because tension is not equal throughout the entire lift, some portions of the exercises range will be relatively easy due to the “slack” (less tension) in the band and other portions of the range will be hard. When performing the squat exercises with resistance bands, you have the most amount of tension from the bands at the top of the movement when you’re simply standing upright, as you are when doing the squat. This is not challenging or overloading your muscles at all so some exercises aren’t going to be very practical with bands. 

On the bright side, that study highlighted that resistance bands are still an excellent option for many other compound exercises and can provide similar benefits as traditional weight training(3)

In 2016, a meta-analysis was published that examined the body of scientific literature comparing muscle activation between elastic resistance bands and “isoinertial” resistance(4). Isoinertial exercises are exercises where the load/tension is equal throughout the range of motion. Some of these studies used fancy equipment that you probably have seen Drago training with in Rocky IV, but many of them are typical weight machines.  

A lot of weight machines provide this isoinertial stimulus. The authors concluded that elastic resistance bands provided a similar stimulus to the primary muscle groups, but also to the smaller, surrounding muscles as well, when compared to traditional resistance exercise (i.e. free weights and/or machine). 

They stated “since development of muscle strength is closely related to the duration of muscle tension, relatively equal muscle adaptations could be expected following the two modes of training provided that equal external resistance is employed between the two exercises.” (4)

In other words, because the bands were able to expose the muscles to about the same amount of tension, for about the same amount of time, they should cause about the same amount of muscle growth. 

Awesome! 

So the research is pretty clear that resistance bands can be used to provide a similar amount of muscle activation when exercising. But are there any long-term studies showing that this does lead to gains in muscle size or improvements in body composition? 

Unfortunately, there aren’t many long term studies on elastic resistance band training and its effects on muscle growth. But it seems like researchers are interested in answering this question. A more recent, 2018 study did report that elastic resistance band training did increase muscle mass and decreased fat mass(5). The limitation with this study was that they examined overweight older women.  (More data on body recomposition – this data was not included in The Ultimate Guide to Body Recomposition but does support this phenomenon) 

What are some of the pros and cons of using resistance bands?

Resistance bands are a solid option for you to have a very effective muscle building workout.  I personally use them within my weight training program as a complementary tool. My clients have also had great success and progressive workouts with resistance bands, however, they also have some downsides. 

Pros:

  • They’re convenient! You can use them in your own house, outdoors, or when traveling.
  • They allow you to do endless exercise variations, and you can train nearly every muscle group if you get creative.
  • They can be effective for gaining strength, especially when using heavier resistance and lower reps.
  • They can be effective for building muscle endurance, especially when using lighter resistance and higher reps.
  • They allow you to systematically progress “tension” over time by using resistance bands of different thicknesses.
  • They allow you to keep constant tension throughout the range of motion, which is not always the case with free-weights.

Cons:

  • They make tracking progress much more difficult. For example, with a dumbbell, you know that a 30 pound dumbbell is more or less 30 pounds. With a resistance band, though, it’s not always clear exactly how much you’re really lifting.
  • You may need a multitude of bands so each exercise can be effectively overloaded.
  • They don’t produce the same amount of resistance throughout the entire movement. With a resistance band, the “weight” changes throughout the movement, making some parts much heavier than others.

So, on the whole, resistance bands can provide you with the stimulus needed to build muscle. 

Not all resistance band exercises are created equal, though. Let’s dive into the best exercises you can perform with resistance bands to get the most out of your time in the gym.

The Best Resistance Band Exercises

As is the case when training with free weights, most of your progress is going to come from a handful of exercises. 

These exercises are, unsurprisingly, mostly compound movements, and should be the bread and butter of your resistance band workouts.

Let’s take a look at each.

Horizontal Row 

The horizontal row can easily be performed with a resistance band and it will stimulate a lot of the major muscle groups in your back. 

The form of row demonstrated in that video above is going to primarily target the lats, rhomboids, lower/mid traps, and biceps. If you pull straight back with your elbow right by your sides (shoulder at 0 degrees) you’re moving through pure extension of the shoulder.

To get the most out of your lats when performing this horizontal row, make sure you initiate the pull by depressing your scapula first. This means you want to drive your shoulder blades down, and then picture yourself scraping your elbow across the floor as you’re rowing back. 

Now, if you want to target different muscles in your back, you can simply perform a different variation of the horizontal row. 

The video above is still a horizontal row exercise, but you can see a dramatic difference in the execution. By having your elbows flaring out wide and starting with you shoulder at 90 degrees, you’re going to change what muscles are doing the majority of the work. 

Start this exercise by retracting your scapula (pinching your shoulder blades together) and then row back. You should feel this exercise target your “upper back” much more. This variation will force your rear delts to do a lot of the work and essentially take your lats completely out of the movement. 

Lateral Raises 

The lateral raise is a great way to develop your shoulder muscles, specifically the lateral head of your deltoid and the upper traps. This exercise can be performed with one arm at a time or both.

I actually prefer resistance band lateral raises over dumbbell lateral raises because you have tension throughout the entire range of motion, whereas with dumbbells the first few inches of the movement aren’t really challenging at all.

Lat Pulldowns 

The lat-pulldown is a great compound exercise to target most of the big muscles of your back. Obviously the lats will do a lot of the work, but you will also engage the teres major, lower traps, and biceps during this exercise.  

Horizontal Press or Push-Up with Bands

The horizontal press is a great way to train your chest, shoulders and triceps. Depending on your experience level you can start by performing this exercise with just resistance bands and increasing the level of resistance over time as you gain strength.

If you can easily perform over 15 body weight push-ups with great form, this is where you can utilize resistance bands to make your push-ups more challenging! 

Here’s how to do it:

One-Arm Chest Fly 

When using resistance bands to perform the chest fly, you will get a much better stimulus for training the chest when performing it with one arm.

The chest’s primary function is to “adduct” the shoulder joint (bring your upper arm across and toward the midline of your body), therefore this fly exercise is a great way to isolate your chest muscle. A bonus to performing this exercise with one arm is that it will simultaneously train your core! 

Here’s how to do it:

Overhead Press 

The overhead press is a great compound exercise that targets your shoulders, traps and triceps. It’s going to be a crucial component to improving your strength on all “pushing” movements. 

Here’s how to do it:

Bicep Curls 

Everyone wants impressive arms, right? Well the resistance band bicep curl is a really simple, yet effective exercise to train the biceps. 

In some ways, it also has an advantage when compared to free weights. Think about your dumbbell bicep curls… you realize that at the top of the movement you can essentially rest?

This is a portion of the range of motion where the muscle is no longer needed to work and the tension is lost. When performing it with resistance bands, you’ll have constant tension throughout the entire range and it’ll actually be most challenging at the top rather than least challenging.

Here’s how to do it:

Tricep Pushdown

To ensure you’re building a balanced physique, you have to train both your elbow flexors (i.e. biceps) and elbow extensors (triceps). The tricep pushdown is a great isolation movement that will stimulate all three portions of the tricep muscle (lateral, medial and long head). This can be performed by attaching the band to the top of a door frame or another point above your body.

Here’s how to do it:

An alternative to this that doesn’t require a fixed object and just the band alone would be the standing overhead tricep extension. 

Here’s what that looks like:

This movement puts the long head of the tricep under a great stretch and forces the medial/lateral heads of the tricep to generate the majority of the force. 

Deadlift 

The deadlift is a great way to train your glutes, hamstrings, quads and core. When performing the deadlift with resistance bands, it’s important to have a band challenging enough that doing 10 repetitions would be very difficult. I recommend you avoid higher repetition ranges (i.e. 15 reps or more) for this one.

Here’s how to do it:

Overhead Squat 

Performing squats with resistance bands can be a bit tricky. Finding the appropriate band tension is going to be very important. By performing this exercise in an overhead fashion, you’re going to create more tension/resistance and force your core to be more engaged throughout the exercise. 

Here’s how to do it:

This will primary train your quads and glutes regardless of your foot position. However, you can also experiment with different foot widths to alter the training stimulus.

Pull Throughs (Hip Hinge) 

Performing a hip hinge exercise is a great way to train the posterior chain, specifically your glutes and hamstrings. Using a resistance band to perform the hip hinge exercise actually has some advantages over traditional free weight hip hinge exercise (i.e. the Romanian Deadlift).

This exercise will be most difficult at the end of the movement where your hips are forced to work hardest. When using free weights, the exercise provides you with the most tension at the part of the movement where you’re weakest. 

So, the main advantage of bands for this movement is that it allows you to work against a light resistance during the part of the movement that you’re weakest, and a heavier resistance during the part of the movement that you’re strongest.

Here’s how to do it:

Lateral Walks

Although this exercise may not look the prettiest, it’s a great way to train your hip musculature, something that’s often neglected. As you take a step out to the side, your hip abductors, such as your gluteus medius will do a lot of the work and if you bring your feet together under control your hip adductors will be stimulated as well.  

Here’s how to do it:

Band Trunk Anti-Rotation 

This might be the hardest “core” exercise you’ve ever done… seriously. It does a great job of actually training your “core” muscles, not necessarily your 6-pack muscles (rectus abdominis). 

This exercise will demand a tremendous amount of strength from your transverse abdominis and internal obliques, the other muscles that make up your midsection.

Here’s how to do it:

Start with a light band that you can effectively keep in position for at least 10 seconds. 

Don’t forget to perform this exercise on both sides! 

Band Trunk Rotation 

So rather than maintaining a position and an isometric muscle contraction the whole time, this exercise will train your core through a range of motion. The biggest difference here is that your external obliques will do much more of the work. 

Here’s how to do it:

Those are my exercise recommendations when it comes to resistance bands.  

Can you do more? Absolutely, but just like any training program, it’s important to start with a solid foundation and progress before switching it up. 

I’ll touch on how to progress on your resistance band workouts in a moment. First, let’s go over the resistance band workout routine.

The Ultimate Resistance Band Workout Routine

Here’s a simple, challenging, and effective resistance band routine you can put into action immediately that will get you on track to building a stronger, more muscular physique. 

*Important Note: the rep ranges are what I would consider to be ideal. However, you would need a large variety of resistance bands to reach failure within all the prescribed rep ranges. 

What’s MOST important is training close to failure. If you can do 30 repetitions with a resistance band but are stopping at 15 reps, you will NOT induce a significant internal stimulus. 

They KEY to training with resistance bands, is training close to muscular failure. I recommend performing all sets at an rate of perceived exertion (RPE) 7-8/10 and taking the final set of each exercise to true failure (RPE 10/10). 

Here are the workouts: Download the excel spreadsheet HERE:

FREE DOWNLOAD

Day 1: Push + Legs

Horizontal Press or Banded Push-Up

Warmup

3 sets of 8 to 15 reps

Overhead Shoulder Press

3 sets of 8 to 15 reps

Lateral Raises

3 sets of 12 to 20 reps

Unilateral Chest Fly

3 sets of 12 to 20 reps

Tricep Pushdown

3 sets of 10 to 15 reps 

Overhead Squat

4 sets of 10 to 20 reps

Lateral Band Walks 

3 sets of 15 to 20 reps

Band Trunk Rotation

3 sets of 15 to 20 reps on each side

Day 2: Pull + Legs 

Horizontal Row – Lat Focused

3 sets of 8 to 15 reps

Horizontal Row – Upper Back Focused

 3 sets of  8 to 15 reps

Lat Pulldown 

3 sets of 8 to 15 reps

Bicep Curl

 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps 

Deadlift

3 sets of 6 to 12 reps

Pull Throughs

 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps

Trunk Anti-Rotations

 3 sets of 10-30 seconds on each side

You should be using a resistance band that’s challenging enough that you reach a point about 1 to 2 reps short of failure within the prescribed repetition range.

For example, if you were performing a horizontal row exercise for your back and you were aiming for 15 repetitions, that 15th rep should be pretty close to muscle failure.  You may be physically capable of performing 16-17 reps, but you know you’d be pushing yourself very close to muscular failure or your form will break down and you’d start to cheat.

If you’re using resistance bands that you can do 30 repetitions with on an exercise you should be doing 8 to 15 repetitions with, you’re basically wasting your time. This resistance won’t be intense enough to produce enough mechanical tension or create muscular damage—two of the key components to causing your muscles to grow.

I recommend you rest anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes on your compound exercises and as short as 30 seconds on your isolation exercises. This shorter rest period will induce more metabolic stress and promote more cell swelling. Combining this stimulus within your resistance training program will hit all three mechanisms of hypertrophy on the head! 

I know muscle growth can seem very difficult to achieve and a complex scientific process.  However, if you implement the following key progression principles to your training regimen, the results will follow.

  • Increase the tension of the band on each exercise over time. 
  • Perform more reps with the same amount of tension
  • Increase the total number of sets performed
  • Increase your training frequency (how many times per week) 

So if you’re pushing yourself while performing these exercises, getting stronger over time and eating enough protein/nutrient dense foods, you will make gains.

The Bottom Line on Resistance Band Workouts

Resistance bands allow you to train every muscle group in your body almost anywhere.

As long as you set up your workout program properly, you can use them to build muscle and gain strength without a problem. For some exercises (like lateral raises), I actually prefer resistance bands over dumbbells.

Progressing on your resistance band exercises can be a bit more complicated than traditional weight training, but as long as you track your workouts and make sure you have enough resistance bands on hand, you’ll have no trouble making progress.

Whether you’re in a time crunch, constantly on the road traveling, or just want to add some variety to your current workouts, you can use resistance bands to build muscle, improve your aesthetics, and better your overall health. 

During this COVID-19 pandemic, at-home exercises are going to be the only option for some of us. Let’s stay physically fit, keep our immune system supercharged, and lead by example. 

I hope you love the free training template!

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